Back in 2016 and 2017, one of the key components of mainstream tech coverage was something referred to as “vaporware“1: flashy, futuristic tech whose supposed potential often overshadowed its practicality or even, you know, actual existence in the real world.
This was a strange time in technology and tech journalism, one I’ve written about at length before. Uber did a whole summit on how it was going to build flying cars, self-driving technology was assumed to be right around the corner, and editors commissioned endless stories about “biohacking” and “transhumanism.” One of the most interesting, most hyped, and most wildly impractical technologies from this era was the hyperloop.
I’m not going to go into huge detail on the hyperloop’s origin story, other than to say it owes its current popularity to the incredibly stupid personality cult surrounding Elon Musk. The technology is relatively easy to understand: you put a vehicle on a track inside a vacuum-sealed tube and it goes very fast.
The hilariously named Virgin Hyperloop2 passed a huge milestone this week when its first two passengers went down its 500-meter tube at a little over 100mph.3 The company celebrated the achievement by releasing a modest video comparing it to, among other things, the moment the Wright Brothers flew the first planes.
The core difference of the “hyperloop” versus, say, a train, is that the passenger-carrying vehicle inside the vacuum tube is not susceptible to air resistance, and can therefore attain speeds that are largely impossible or unsafe for an external train. However, as you can imagine, the logistics of building a perfectly vacuum-sealed tube big enough to carry a magnetic levitation vehicle are significantly more difficult than, say, building a train track (even a magnetic levitation one).
And as many people pointed out online, focusing on this kind of technology rather than, say, trains, is insanely stupid because we already have trains that are way better than this. We—by which I mean America— just don’t want to spend the money to build them.
Hyperloop is, in this context, the perfect example of the end-state death-cult capitalism that the American ruling class believes in. Virgin Hyperloop has raised some $400 million so far according to the New York Times story on the test, which is half just a press release and then two interviews with experts saying “this shit won’t work, why are they doing this.” $400 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what it would cost to build an actual functioning high-speed rail network across the country.4
What hyperloop does do, however, is let the powers that be point to flashy efforts to make a cool technology real, like when Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao5created the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council to basically remove any federal regulation that would stop people flooding money into this shit.
Despite how all this sounds, I’m ultimately not a pessimist on the hyperloop as a whole. I think that worldwide mass transit is eventually going to need some kind of system that replaces air travel, which is extraordinarily energy-inefficient and currently relies entirely on fossil fuels to make it work. Ground transportation is largely restricted in speed by friction and air resistance, two things that a vacuum-sealed hyperloop system removes.6 I think eventually, a global network of 500 mph + transport technology might be feasible, but this is like 2200 tech we’re talking about, not 2020. Until then, we have trains. Trains that work, trains that can work even better, trains that are incredibly efficient at moving goods, services, and people long distances and are relatively easy to power with non-fossil-fuel sources because they’re on static tracks. Trains are good!
But this is America, and we cannot have nice things. Creating a nationwide high-speed rail service would cost money and political capital, and doing it right would require it to be a largely publicly-funded and administered project. Hyperloop, however, is marketing itself to the highest bidder: there’s a reason that the first contracts its various scammy companies sold were to do things like connecting Riyadh to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
The core deceit of all of these technologies, from hyperloop to flying cars to neural nets, is that they will demonstrably improve everyday people’s lives at some point in their lifetimes. What the founders do is say “this is coming in 2020,” in 2016, and by 2020 they’re a bit behind schedule, but look, they have a flashy test to show you. The technology is coming soon, they promise. And when it gets here, when they “make it a reality,” to paraphrase almost every article written about vaporware, your life will get better. Only the tech never comes. And when it does, you won’t be able to afford it. It’s entirely possible that in our lifetimes the oil and gas billionaires in Saudi Arabia will be able to shoot themselves in tiny designer-branded pods with heated leather seats from one side of the Kingdom to the other. Maybe we’ll even have a line in the U.S. that Wall Street execs and DC lobbyists will use to blast up and down the Eastern Seaboard for business lunches. But you and me? We’ll be stuck on dilapidated Amtrak lines, no matter how many press tours Joe Biden takes on them, eating Cup Noodles from the dining car, or else stuck in our cars, choking the sky with emissions from the gas that we can barely afford to buy, stuck in traffic on roads falling further and further into disrepair, our only consolation the fact that the hyperloop’s vacuum-sealed tubes don’t have windows, so its riders won’t be able to gawk or gloat as they fly by at 800 miles per hour.
- For an absolutely excellent breakdown of what vaporware and tech like it is, watch engineering YouTuber donoteat01’s video on a related idea, Elon Musk’s “Loop” system. He uses the term “Fucking Magic,” rather than vaporware, which is more fun to say honestly.
- As an aside, Virgin Hyperloop is the like fifth corporate incarnation of a company called Hyperloop One that was founded by a bunch of tech dorks including a man named, I shit you not, Brogan BamBrogan, who later left the company to start his own hyperloop company because his co-founders allegedly put an alleged noose on his desk during some kind of internal conflict that I refuse to re-familiarize myself with but that you can read about here in a listicle that I edited in 2016.
- Guess they can’t call it a virgin anymore ha ha ha ha.
- Probably in the hundreds of billions if not trillions I honestly have no idea but it’s not cheap. Seth Moulton put forth a $240 billion plan a few years ago but I think that’s a little low.
- Chao is also Mitch McConnell’s wife.
- People actually figured this out in the 1800s when they used pneumatic tubes to shoot mail and cargo all over London.